The tension inherent in the question of whether she was a victim or an operator was what drove “Miss Bala,” a tale about how easy it is to get sucked into this underworld, and how hard it is to get out. (“Bala” means bullet in Spanish, and therein lies the dark pun of the title.)
With the movie’s combination of frantic gun battles and beautiful pageant contestants, it’s no wonder Hollywood saw it as prime remake material. But achieving tonal balance between sociology and schlock is no easy task, and this film doesn’t pull it off.
Catherine Hardwicke helms the remake of the same name, with a script by Mexican writer Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, who is tackling his first full-length project. It stars the eminently appealing Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a young Mexican-American makeup artist from Los Angeles who gets caught up in the swirl of corruption and cartels while visiting a friend who is competing in the Miss Baja California pageant.
A lack of talent isn’t the issue here. Hardwicke (“Twilight”) is an accomplished director who brings an addictive verve and visual dynamism to this bombastic take. And Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”) has a charm so appealing it could be weaponized. You want to be her best friend, which works well, because the film is about Gloria’s journey through hell and back to save her best friend, Suzu (Cristina Rodlo).
The problem lies in the rather bland script, which jettisons any trenchant commentary for plot twists and turns, losing its train of thought along the way.
While hobnobbing at a nightclub with a pageant bigwig, the friends are separated during a shooting. In an effort to locate Suzu, Gloria gets caught up with the shady local police, who hand her off to the La Estrella cartel, where she is blackmailed into making drug runs across the border while the DEA is pressuring her to become an informant. It’s a Catch-22 that becomes increasingly complex but somehow less compelling.
The focus is largely on the relationship with Lino (Ismael Cruz-Cordova), the head of the Estrellas, who takes a shine to Gloria even as he is using her. They both grew up in California and relate to each other’s identity struggles.
Their shared experience humanizes Lino, despite his violent criminal acts. But it’s hard to gain an emotional foothold in “Miss Bala” because the film seems unsure of itself in terms of what it wants to express about violence, exploitation and morality.
This is a story about a good girl who has to do bad things to survive. But instead of a bleak tale about a place hopelessly paralyzed in the grip of crime and corruption, the American “Miss Bala” tries to twist it into something empowering: Rodriguez grabs an AR-15 while outfitted in a red satin gown — how very American of her. Ultimately, Gloria is rewarded, not haunted, by her violent turn, and the film ends on a conservative, pro-government note.
It’s a Hollywood ending that completely misses the point of what “Miss Bala” was and should be.